When I worked on Blueprint, an A3-sized Design and Architecture magazine, launched by a collective of designers and writers, I was mainly a designer. I assisted Simon Esterson, learning an enormous amount about how to put magazines together. I had occasionally written for other magazines that I was designing, but I was especially happy to be asked to interview Neville Brody, as a big fan of his illustrative and idiosyncratic approach to design. He made it very easy, being both incredibly personable and quotable. I interviewed him again a few years later, for The Illustrated London News, and I’ll post that here soon.
PUTTING ON A BOLD FACE
When it becomes time to produce an 80s volume of Pioneers of Modern Typography the British section may be a one-man show. Write “B for Brody”, large. Virtually every magazine that pretends to be at the leading edge suffers from Brody fall-out, a situation that leaves its instigator wondering where he can turn for inspiration, where he can say “I wish I’d done that.”
Neville Brody has made typography a subject that is discussed in the non-rarified air of the real world, not just amongst art directors and students, for which he’s had to pay the price of Italian TV interviews and coachloads of Swedes descending on his cubicle of a studio at The Face offices as if it were a shrine. Quite where all of this started seems simple enough, but hindsight always makes the best ideas seem obvious.
A Man with all the Reasons
When Neville Brody went to the London College of Printing, it was rumoured to turn out people who could hand-draw a page of text so that it looked as if it were printed by machine. He arrived there as an illustrator who had decided to go to the most serious design course extant because it would have the strictest discipline. “If you’re going to rebel, you have to rebel against the strongest opposition. When I fought, I had to put so much into it, so that nothing I did could be faulted on quality. Since I had to effectively give up illustration, I put all my energy into type — so I use type as illustration.”
On leaving college, Brody started his journey from the rebellious underground to the overground. As the end of the fifties threw up Elvis and the sixties subsumed him into Hollywood and the mainstream, so the hippies and radicals at the end of the sixties suffered the big chill and became the junior executives of the seventies,
This “end of the decade” cycle continued — the late seventies in England bought, in the first throes of punk, the independent record boom. Neville got a job designing record covers: “I did a lot that had my own illustrations on — I’d carve wood for a record cover, use clay and plaster, photographed and re-photographed, I was also using the PMT machine lying halftone on halftone, building up something. Then there was a shift. The independents were running out of money and thought, hang on a minute — we’re appealing to 20,000 people here. What do we have to do to appeal to 200,000 or 1,200,000? And they started to ape the major record labels. At the same time, the majors began to ape the styles of the small labels.” Now, says Neville, it’s all flattened out, and companies have reverted to the direct marketing of a photo of the artiste on the cover.
Facing the Nation
Joining Nick Logan’s shoestring operation, The Face, at the end of its first year provided the vehicle for Neville’s influential encounter with the public. At The Face he is reflecting “the modern visual mentality, which is centred, I think, around a technological solution to things. It is based on what I’d call a unit design: everything in a unit and that unit can be squashed or shrunk, and there are x units on a page.” The Face’s longevity (five years this month) now places it amongst the magazine establishment. “The anniversary issue is the celebration of a new establishment: we’ve become the new yardstick.” Its acceptance and widespread influence mean that it has moved overground in a way that, say, i-D never has.
In talking about how he’s used photography, Brody explains some of the reasons for the magazine’s success. “One of the reasons we use photography is because of the technological feel of it — it’s a news story, and people are used to watching the news, getting a very fast flash of images.” Is that to say that The Face is disposable? “Oh, completely … and immensely collectable because of it. We’re dealing with a very disposable subject matter, and the modern mentality has learnt the value of disposablity. Sixties stuff is extremely valuable now, and it’s to do with these places like the V&A — instant collectors. They’ve learnt the lessons that the Tate is still learning, which is to buy at the time, instead of paying a fortune for it in twenty years. So effectively we’re moving into a time where institutions ‘sponsor’ the modern lifestyle, as a kind of investment for the future. In a sense, The Face does the same. We’re an immediate museum, a museum in everyone’s home!” This last is said with a grin, as Neville recounts stories of people buying two copies of The Face — one to keep and the other to cut up and pin-up.
“America’s a completely different story”
Soon the magazine world was awash with or ersatz Brody-isms, mostly of a lamentable nature, but the most substantial piece of flattery-by-imitation came from that home of the terminally hip, New York. Mademoiselle had been using a design ‘inspired’ by Brody’s work for some time and decided one day to bring in ’original’ designer, as it were. It’s the sort of thing that American magazines love to do, the big splash, the smell of money burning. I’m sure that if you looked at the masthead of Mademoiselle, you would find that their Art Department staff probably outnumbered the entire workforce of a comparable British magazine, what with their fetish for Consultative/Associate/Design Director titles. But Brody found that they support people whose creative input seems to consist of the power of rejection.
Neville was offered the job, accepted, and was flown into the heat of a New York August. “I did a great job,” he says with assurance. Mademoiselle loved it, and Alexander Libermạn rejected it. Alexander Liberman is the man who oversees the Condé Nast group’s worldwide Art Direction, and he considered the design too masculine, too bold, even though he had seen and approved all the roughs. Lieberman felt that something more ‘feminine and pastel’ was required.’ This did not strike Neville as “the woman of today.” “Obviously, the guy had had a bad morning,” was all Neville would say. “I wanted to design them a new typeface, for exclusive use, and he rejected it because he thought it was pretentious. This man is a weekend painter!” Being asked to re-think, Neville turned the power of rejection on them and headed back to London.
A future for the fluent
Having fitted in two months in New York between issues of The Face, and having re-designed City Limits shortly before would have drained the creativity of most people, but Brody finds that other pressures are more of a hindrance to progress. To be honest, the work that I’m doing now is not as good as the work I did two years ago — not as innovative. Because it is more public now, and people are copying it, I think that any mark I make will appear somewhere else, so if I get a great idea I tend to hold it back!”
“At the root of it, Graphic Design is a complete language, like French, and some people are born to it and understand it fluently, can talk slang if necessary. Then some just use phrasebooks and don’t understand the words they’re saying, but the phrase solves their question. At the moment, something like The Face design is the perfect phrasebook to a lot of designers. They understand the surface of what they’re doing, but they don’t understand the reasoning. I’ll think why should a headline be overpowering? The eye has to be drawn to a headline, but that can be done with white space or can be done using a shape, whatever, so I’ll come up with a solution where the headline is 8pt, with a half-page of white space around it, and it’s just as readable. Someone will look at it and say Ah, 8pt headline and they’ll only use 8pt headlines with a double page of copy.”
It’s good to have Neville Brody around to remind us that Good Design and Taste can be exciting. A lot of people miss the humour in his work, and a lot of people have seen the imitators first, but when he says that in ten years he feels he might be as stuffy as Saatchi and Saatchi, take it with a pinch of salt. He grins when he says serious words like “I want someone to challenge me, and I hope it doesn’t have to be myself!”